In the early morning of May 10, 2015, Kedena Brown was driving her Chrysler 300 in North Charleston, South Carolina, when a dark blue Honda CR-V pulled up and shot into her car.
Three people—Richard Simmons, 20; Kenneth Lamont Robinson Jr., 15; and Keon Marquell Cortez Anderson, 19—were in the CR-V. They had been chasing a different Chrysler 300, full of people who they thought had shot at them earlier that day, but lost the car in the process.
When they spotted Brown’s Chrysler, Robinson and Anderson told Simmons, who had by then taken Robinson’s gun, that it was the wrong car and warned him not to shoot. There was a woman inside, and it was going in the wrong direction, they said. Simmons fired. Brown, a mother of three, died soon after in the hospital. It was Mother’s Day.
All three people in the car were arrested. At first, Simmons lied to police, claiming that Robinson was the shooter. Going on this information, a judge moved Robinson’s case from family court to adult court.
But between then and Robinson’s trial, Simmons admitted that he was the shooter. Robinson’s lawyers asked that his case be remanded to family court in light of the new information; the judge refused.
Robinson was tried for murder under South Carolina’s accomplice liability law, commonly known as “hand of one, hand of all.” According to the law, all participants in a crime can be charged with any crimes committed in pursuit of that crime.
“Everyone in that Honda CR-V is guilty of murder,” prosecutor Culver Kidd said in closing arguments. “Everyone.”
In June 2018, Robinson was sentenced to 50 years in prison. Months later, Simmons accepted a plea bargain of 30 years, the state’s minimum sentence for murder. Anderson pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter, a lesser charge, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Robinson appealed his case in June 2020. His lawyers argue that the sentencing disparities among all three defendants suggest Robinson’s punishment was unduly harsh and that the court was wrong to apply the “hand of one, hand of all” doctrine to a juvenile case.
“Because Kenneth’s jury was not able to use a reasonable child standard in determining whether he should be convicted as an accomplice,” the appeal reads, “his murder conviction should be reversed.”
Accomplice liability laws exist in some form in most states. They are similar to felony murder rules, which stipulate that if a murder occurs during the commission of a felony, like a robbery, anyone who participated in the felony can be charged with murder.
To convict someone under an accomplice liability law, prosecutors must prove intent—that the person should have foreseen that they were about to be involved with a crime. In other words, courts rely on interpreting the mental state of the accomplice, rather than their specific actions.
Michael Heyman, a professor emeritus of law at the University of Illinois at Chicago, told The Appeal that this means that “you can be guilty of something that you should have known would flow naturally and probably from the actions you take.”
In Robinson’s case, his guilt hinged not on whether he pulled the trigger but whether he could have foreseen that someone might be killed after getting in the CR-V. But research suggests that when it comes to children, intent is a particularly ill-suited basis on which to judge one’s actions.
In a 2003 journal article, Temple University psychology professor Laurence Steinberg and Columbia University law professor Elizabeth Scott wrote that children “should not be held to the same standards of criminal responsibility as adults, because adolescents’ decision-making capacity is diminished, they are less able to resist coercive influence, and their character is still undergoing change.” Teens’ prefrontal cortexes––the part of the brain that determines impulse control, judgement, and the ability to deliberate––are still not fully developed, according to the article. The authors argue this greatly affects their ability to develop intent at all. There is sufficient evidence, Steinberg and Scott wrote, to “support the position that youths who commit crimes should be punished more leniently than their adult counterparts.”
In 2015, the National Center for Juvenile Justice estimated that 75,900 people under the age of 18 are tried in adult court every year.
The article was first cited in March 2005 in the U.S. Supreme Court case Roper v. Simmons, which outlawed the practice of sentencing minors to death. The article was also cited in the landmark 2012 case Miller v. Alabama, in which the Supreme Court court ruled that it is unconstitutional to impose on children a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Yet the U.S. criminal legal system continues to treat children as adults in many instances. In 2015, the National Center for Juvenile Justice estimated that 75,900 people under the age of 18 are tried in adult court every year. But exact transfer data is difficult to obtain; many states don’t publicly report total transfer data, including that of children to adult court, according to the federal. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Steven Drizin, clinical professor of law at Northwestern University and co-founder of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, said in an email to The Appeal that a law like accomplice liability “fuels mass incarceration.” It sweeps an inordinate number of people into the carceral system, he said. Over 40,000 children are incarcerated in the U.S. on any given day, according to the Prison Policy Initiative.
Referring to Robinson, Marsha Levick, co-founder of the Juvenile Law Center, told The Appeal: “You have a 15-year-old who was a participant in a homicide who will not be the same person in 20 years, so what is the point of him being incarcerated for so long?”
Jobi Cates, the executive director of Restore Justice, said accomplice liability and felony murder rules also result in labeling people as violent offenders even when “they may never have so much as thrown a punch.” This often makes them ineligible for clemency initiatives. For example, California Governor Gavin Newsom, in response to the spread of COVID-19, expedited the release of about 3,500 nonviolent prisoners; people incarcerated for violent crimes on accomplice liability were not eligible.
In South Carolina, the “hand of one, hand of all” doctrine frequently draws children “from family court into adult court, because they have adult co-defendants,” said John Blume, one of Robinson’s lawyers.
University of South Carolina law professor Josh Gupta-Kagan described the state as still relatively tough on crime. “They’re behind the curve on sentencing legislation for kids tried and convicted as adults,” he said. The state continues to automatically transfer some types of felonies to adult court and is not yet in full compliance with the ruling in Miller v. Alabama, as other states are.
However, “things are generally moving in the right direction,” noted Gupta-Kagan. In the 2014 case Aiken v. Byars, the state Supreme Court ruled that 15 people sentenced to life without parole as children were entitled to resentencing under Miller, and in 2019, the state raised the age at which someone must be tried in adult court to 18 from 17. Last year, lawmakers in the state proposed the South Carolina Juvenile Justice Reform Act which would, among other reforms, allow judges to impose sentences less than the mandatory minimum for children convicted of murder.
A few other states have begun to chip away at accomplice liability. Three states—Hawaii, Kentucky, and Michigan—have abandoned the felony murder rule. Illinois has limited the automatic transfer to adult court of children by ending the transfer of children under 15 and only moving 16- and 17-year-olds in the case of serious crimes. In September 2018, California enacted Senate Bill 1437, which requires prosecutors prove intent in order to charge someone with felony murder. The state also passed a series of laws starting in 2014 that eased parole guidelines and mandated resentencing for incarcerated people who committed crimes as children.
One beneficiary of the resentencing guidelines is Philip Melendez, a community organizer in California who was incarcerated at age 19. He served 20 years in prison before he was resentenced and released in 2017.
“At 19, I did not feel like I was part of the community.” Melendez told The Appeal. “I had a lot of trauma I had to work through.” Parole, he said, “gave me a second chance at life. A second chance to take a different path.”
During Robinson’s stay in a juvenile justice facility, he completed his GED—the first in his family to do so. Multiple guards testified to his good conduct at his sentencing, something almost unheard of in South Carolina, Blume told The Appeal.
Still, during sentencing, the judge faulted Robinson for getting in the car. Blume said that the worst aspect of the judge’s logic was that it essentially punished Robinson for being a kid.
Even if Robinson is resentenced, great damage has already been done, his lawyers noted. If he had been tried in family court, he likely would have been out of prison at 21.
The problem with accomplice liability for children, critics say, is that it contradicts what science tells us about the adolescent brain, ignoring its capacity for change.
“We have forsaken the notice of second chances,” Levick said, “and certainly for kids, that is unacceptable.”